“What did the Romans ever do for us?”: Meknes to Fes (Highlights of Morocco)

I knew it wasn’t going to be summer toasty in Morocco in February, but I hadn’t expected to need to sleep in a jumper and my silk sleeping bag liner either. In hindsight, I should have gone the whole hog and cracked open my brand new super-soft goose down North Face sleeping bag for a much better night’s slumber; you live and learn.

I made up for a slightly depressing night’s sleep by consuming as much strong, black Moroccan coffee as I could the next morning over a filling breakfast of bread, chocolate pastries, cheese, and what appeared to be children’s yoghurts, judging by the Sylvester and Tweetie Pie decoration on the pots.

We had a free morning to explore Meknes, once the capital of Morocco under the reign of Moulay Ismail (1672–1727), before it was relocated to Marrakech. It was only a 30-minute walk from the hotel to the old town and Meknes’ main attractions.

We wandered through a doorway and into a square, discovering a gate we thought might be Bab Mansour. Named after the man who designed and built it in the time of Moulay Ismail, it is of monumental proportions and could be considered the greatest decorative gate in the whole of Morocco. We took lots of photos. Encountering another carved stone entry way, we drifted in and through a series of tranquil, empty courtyards, before eventually happening upon some shoes tidily placed outside a final doorway. Whilst wondering whether we had happened upon somewhere private that we really shouldn’t be, out came two ladies with their small children. We asked them if we could go in and they said it was, of course, ok. We had accidentally stumbled upon the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail. Built originally in the seventeenth century, the ablutions room and burial chamber of the mausoleum were decorated very intricately. The wizened old custodian gentleman inside told us that the slightly incongruous grandfather clock in the tomb was in fact a gift from Louis XIV.Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail2Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail 3

Venturing back the way we had come and avoiding a gentleman dressed as an old-fashioned water carrier and several horse-drawn carriages with tired-looking drapes, we finally found the actual Bab Mansour gate about ten metres down the road from the gateway we had first entered, and across from it the large expanse of Place el-Hedime. How on earth had we missed it the first time?Place el-Hedime

Having run the gauntlet of the young men touting for customers at the restaurants flanking the square, at the far left of the piazza we discovered the entrance to the market. Here it was bustling, and like in Casablanca no one batted an eyelid at our presence; except that is for a small boy of about four or five who threw a stone at me and giggled, running away with his little pals as fast as his legs could carry him. The fruit and vegetables laid out for sale looked colourful and fresh, far more appealing than those on the supermarket shelves back home. There were live chickens clucking and squawking and boxes of chirruping chicks, sprayed pink and blue.

On the other corner of the square was the souk, a more peaceful area. Each street seemed to provide a more photogenic scene than the last. We succumbed to a sweet pastry at a tiny bakery, counting that as lunch.The souk

Back on the square we scouted out a rooftop café. We sat down for a cooling juice and watched the now busy square come to life. There was a group of young lads trying to sell SIM cards, all swagger in their orange uniform tops. Another man offered horse rides, whilst another tried to coax people into having their photos taken with two unruly monkeys decked out in football shirts: Chelsea and Barcelona I think. I wonder what else would have come out of the woodwork if we had more time to stay and observe.

Before too long it was time to return to the hotel, to catch the bus to Volubilis. The countryside between Meknes and Volubilis was a vibrant green, littered with olive trees and bright marigolds.

Volubilis, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, developed as a settlement from the third century BC and grew rapidly under Roman rule from the first century AD onwards. It covered about 42 acres, a substantial colonial town on the fringes of the Roman Empire.

Our guide was excellent and it was still early enough in the season for the site to be relatively empty. We explored relatively unhindered for an hour and a half. Inspecting the fabulous array of mosaics that were fortunately preserved under mounds of soil when the earthquake that eventually destroyed most of the buildings struck back in the middle of the eighteenth century. A cheeky reminder that the Romans were far less prudish than most of today’s societies came when the guide took us over to a plinth displaying a giant penis, which he proudly informed us would have pointed the way to the whore house!Volubilis1Volubilis2Volubilis3Volubilis4Volubilis5Volubilis6

After Volubilis we moved on to Fes, breaking the 90-minute drive only briefly to admire the view over a reservoir and to stock up on dates and oranges.ReservoirReservoir2

Our hotel in Fes, Riad Reda, a stone’s throw from the royal palace, was incredible. Tucked away in the souk, with an unassuming entranceway, the inner courtyard was a riot of earthy tones, with each archway on every level housing a tree. It was paradise, carefully concealed from public view.Riad Reda

Dinner that night was a magical mystery tour. We hopped in the mini bus and headed across to the medina. Mohamed lead us up into the darkened back streets and down a tiny and not terribly salubrious alleyway where he knocked on an extremely unassuming door. Inside was a family restaurant, decorated with a riot of dazzling tile work, with ceilings of carved woodwork that must have taken months to create. We feasted on bread, olives, harissa, carrots, potatoes, rice, beans, lentils, beetroot, aubergine and cauliflower dishes, served in a tapas-like presentation. The others had a parcel of meat and spices in pastry, called a pastille, whilst I had a special veggie version. Dessert was a mixture of fruits. It was lovely. After we had eaten, the lady of the household gave us a tour of the riad, duly proud of her beautiful home and business.

Day two may have started with a chilly night’s sleep and a pot of children’s yoghurt, but it would end with a Moroccan feast and a cosy hotel room with a heat pump.

Let’s go fly a kite: a bloody great big one shaped like Batman

Batman exits, persuant by a frog

On Sunday 24 August I was in Southsea enjoying a day trip to the seaside. This summer I’ve been exploring the coastal towns of southern Britain with a dream of buying my first house and gaining a beach bum lifestyle. I’ve marvelled over the insanely fabulous decoration in the dining room of the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, gorged on coffee and cake in the stunning café at the end of the pier in Worthing and battled with the current in an attempt to complete the Big Sea Swim in Eastbourne. I was therefore obviously very excited to see what unusual delights Southsea might have to offer me.

The Victorious music festival was underway on Southsea Common that weekend, but I wasn’t inclined to go to a festival solo, so I moved onwards in search of alternative entertainment. Nestled between the area cordoned off for the festival and the amusement arcades on Clarence Pier I was to find it: the Portsmouth International Kite Festival. It was described as ‘one of’ the UK’s premier kite festivals. The mind boggles, where are the others? Celebrating its 23rd anniversary, it promised enormous, wonderful kites and inflatables; superb multi-line, artistic and historic kites.

I didn’t partake of the acrobatic kite-flying displays, frankly the man on the tannoy system managed to make them sound exceptionally dull, but I have to admit the sight of the incredible array of inflatable kites, in all shapes and sizes, decorating the grey sky above the common with a rainbow of colour was pretty impressive, particularly when a giant purple teddy bear nearly took out some passing tourists. However, my favourite was Batman, mainly because he appeared to be trying to escape from a very persistent purple frog.

Highlights of Morocco: Casablanca to Meknes

I arrived in Morocco early for my 15-day Imaginative Traveller ‘Highlights of Morocco’ trip, only by a day, but it was enough time to explore Casablanca, a city that the tour didn’t appear to cover beyond Hassan II, of which more detail in a bit. I was travelling solo and the world seems set to penalise you for that, which is frankly annoying when you consider that the number of people living alone has been rising for decades. The Imaginative (Exodus) way is for solo travellers to share rooms, unless they really wish to be on their own, then they have to pay a supplement. After years of backpacking, I was happy to see what a round of roommate roulette would throw at me; she would arrive with the rest of the group on the verge of midnight. In the meantime, there was only one key for the room, a remarkably chunky thing that looked like it should be used for opening the door to a castle and it doubled as the key to the lights so I would not be able to pop it behind reception and go to sleep. Instead, lost in a particularly good book, I waited up for her.

Those on the group flight were a bit later than midnight in the end, they’d managed to gather up a member of another tour group at the airport. She latched on to the wrong batch of tourists, obviously bamboozled by the similarity between the words Exodus and Explore.

My brief intro to C that night was friendly, and boded well for the rest of the tour. We bonded over our shared bemusement of the lace-trimmed, four-poster beds with domineering oil paintings looming overhead, she set an alarm for breakfast, and we went to sleep. We would reconvene in the morning.

My only previous experience of group travel was several multi-day tours I took around Australia in my mid-twenties. As a result, I imagined a small group of people my own age. I half hoped for a nice single hottie to admire as we journeyed around Morocco. Dream on, my dear. There were 12 of us, ranging in age from 30 to 70, with a heavy emphasis on the latter section of the span. I was, it turned out, a young ‘un. I will admit that, at first, I was a little disappointed, having hoped to meet some new people from my own generation; however, it was not to be and the other members of the group turned out to be lovely, interesting and exceptionally well-travelled.

After breakfast, our guide Mohamed gave us a quick team talk about where the ‘Highlights of Morocco’ would take us and then we hopped onto the minibus to our first destination: Hassan II.Hassan II

It was raining as we arrived, but the building was no less spectacular than the previous day. The second-largest religious building in the world after the mosque in Mecca, it can hold 25,000 worshippers inside and a further 80,000 in the courtyard outside. Its minaret reaches 200 metres into the Moroccan sky and houses a laser at its peak that sends out a beam towards Mecca. Although the Moroccan tradition is for non-Muslim’s not to be given access to religious buildings, visitors of all backgrounds and beliefs are allowed to enter on guided tours.

The walls are made of hand-crafted marble, the chandeliers of Venetian Murano glass, the doors of titanium, to protect them from the potentially damaging effects of the sea, the roof is retractable, like Wimbledon’s Centre Court, and twelve million people paid for its construction, which lasted seven years. Having finally opened its doors in 1993, the only thing not working beautifully is the hammam in the basement, which remains unused. It is well worth a tour.Hassan II, 2Hassan II, 3Hassan II, HammamHassan II, Hammam2

The next stop would be Rabat, and on the way out of Casablanca in the minibus I finally spotted Rick’s Café, just round the corner from the hotel, typical!

Rabat was about an hour’s drive north, and first impressions of the city as we drove in were slightly more favourable than Casablanca. We stopped for lunch in a café, shuffling in to find the Explore group had arrived first. It wasn’t great, overpriced cheese omelette did not strike me as a particularly Moroccan experience. Hopefully the food would improve as the tour progressed.

The ruins of Chellah were our next port of call. Uninhabited since the early twelfth century, the walled ruins now provide a perfect nesting place for a muster of storks. It appeared to be mating season when we arrived, the frisky beggars were making an almighty clacking sound from their perches high up on the minarets and in the trees overlooking the remains of a once prosperous roman city and all of the subsequent societies that have inhabited the spot since that empire’s decline.ChellahChellah 2Chellah 3Chellah 4, storkChellah 5Chellah, mating storksChellah 6Chellah, flowerChellah 8

From Chellah we moved on to the Mausoleum of Mohammad V. Commissioned by his son Hassan II, it is a perfectly preserved example of the Alaouite dynasty’s architectural style and the final resting place of three significant members of the royal family. It is located in Yacoub Al Mansour Square across from the Hassan Tower. The tower, begun in 1195, was intended to be the largest minaret in the world, but in 1199 Sultan Yacoub al-Mansour died and construction on the tower, and the mosque of which it was a part, stopped. The tower reached about half of its intended 86 m height and only the beginnings of several walls and 200 columns of the mosque were ever constructed.Mausoleum Mohammad VHassan TowerHassan Tower 2

Our hotel for the night was in Meknes, a further two hours away. The countryside was at first littered with plastic bags, but once outside of the city’s environs, lush, undulating landscape, reminiscent of northern Spain, took over. After a dinner of vegetable cous cous and crème caramel, eaten in a small restaurant decorated with slightly risqué wall art, we said goodbye to a very busy day one.


Tiki Taane: from Aotearoa to Hoxton

Tiki Taane

I don’t normally do photos of people, because frankly I’m not very good at taking them. I much prefer landscapes and flowers, they don’t move around so much or get grumpy if you post a picture of them they don’t like on Facebook. Now bear with me, this still vaguely links to travelling, I promise. On 30 July I went to see Tiki Taane and Jayson Norris at the Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen in London. I first became aware of Tiki and his music during the three years I lived in New Zealand. It was around the time his “Past, Present, Future” album came out and one particular song (“Always on my mind”) was played to death on the radio and seemed to be the backing track to just about every TV advert that could be even tenuously linked to love or relationships. In fact, it is still the most successful single of all time in New Zealand. It is a truly great song. Now I don’t tend to go and see live music, all of the people I tend to like are just a little too big and mainstream for their own good and it takes too much time and effort to get tickets; the big, soulless venues and crowds of people also tend to put me off. So, when I saw that Tiki was honouring an intimate venue in Hoxton with his talents, a man who would surely fill out far bigger venues in his native country, I just had to make an exception and go. He’s quite eclectic in his output and i’m not massively into the more dancey “dubstep” stuff, but Tiki and Jayson, billed as two guys and their guitars, did not disappoint. The crowd was stacked with Kiwis, the artistes were obviously up for a good time and seemed to have a genuine affection for one another, and they treated us to a couple of hours of excellent vocals backed by some funky guitar playing, pimped up on occasion by some impressive electronic gymnastics thanks to Tiki’s gizmos. There was even a spot of conch blowing, hence the photo. It was an evening in honour of a country I can’t help but adore, with a soundtrack supplied by two great musicians, including one who must surely be one of his country’s greatest contemporary musical talents.

“Rainforest”, Bedford Square, London

RainsforestRainsforest 2

I have the pleasure of working in a rather fancy Georgian square in London. You know that part in Notting Hill when Hugh Grant is showing off to Julia Roberts and takes her into one of those magical and yet private oases in the middle of what always feels like such a sprawling and overcrowded city, well it’s a bit like that: gorgeous buildings, surrounding an exclusive and well-tended garden. You have to have a key to be allowed in. On a lunchtime you can usually find the workers from the surrounding buildings sitting on the pavement outside, propped against the railings, whilst all of that green loveliness sadly sits unoccupied inside. Everyone could of course walk about 200 metres past the rear entrance to the British Museum and instead sit in the less exclusive Russell Square Gardens, and I have never understood why they don’t, but I’m getting off the point of my post.

Earlier in the summer the serenity of one corner of the square was disrupted briefly as an area was cordoned off and an unusual sculpture, I’m not convinced that’s the right word, gradually appeared out of a pile of rocks and metal. Created by the Chilean-German architecture practice GUN Architects, the erection, called Rainforest, stood outside the Architectural Association’s offices until last week when it was finally dismantled. The five-metre-high structure contained a special microclimate of tree-like structures with an arrangement of fabric “stalactites” which gently dripped water into pools below, which were bedecked with ferns. The intention was for visitors to sit beneath the stalactites and enjoy the raindrops, pools and plants.

It certainly created a talking point, but sadly very quickly looked a little bit scruffy as some of the carefully arranged rocks at its base gradually went AWOL. I’m not sure what it says about me that my immediate thought on seeing it completed was that someone was likely to run off with the rocks or at least lob them through a nearby window. Clearly I wasn’t brought up in one of those exclusive London squares!

Majorelle reflections

Majorelle reflectionHaving been caught up in something else for a while, I realise I have let this slide. So I think it’s time to get back to Morocco. I’ll ease back in with a photo post from the end of my trip, taken in the Jardin Majorelle (Majorelle Garden) in Marrakech back in March of this year. Jacques Majorelle was a French painter who fell in love with Morocco whilst travelling there in the early 1900s. He settled in Marrakech, remaining until ill health finally took him back to his native France just before his death in 1962. Whilst in the city he acquired land and eventually commissioned an architect to build him a Moorish villa. Around that villa he explored his inner botanist and laid out an impressive garden. He was obliged to open it up to the public in 1947 as a result of some unfortunate personal circumstances and towards the end of his life he was sadly forced to sell portions of his land. After his death the garden fell into disrepair. In 1980 it was finally saved from the potentially appalling fate of being replaced by a hotel by some unlikely saviours (Yves Saint-Laurent and Pierre Bergé), who in a true labour of love restored it to its former glory.

Today it is a very busy place, undoubtedly very pretty, but far too oversubscribed to be a place for peaceful contemplation, at least during peak opening hours. This image shows how beautifully reflective it could be if you could just ignore all of the other tourists.

The Idiots go long: Endure24, Wasing Park, 2014

Endure tshirtLast year I took part in a 24-hour endurance running event called, rather appropriately, Endure24. My Sunday running group, the Village Idiots, entered as a team of seven, the weather was glorious and we basically enjoyed a 24-hour picnic in a field in Berkshire interspersed by occasional five-mile runs. My own contribution to the proceedings was five laps, that’s 25 miles, and I was frankly quite chuffed with that. So, the question is, when registration opened for the 2014 event in August 2013 how did I find myself signing up as part of a mixed pair? How do you go from thinking that being part of a team of seven is the best way to run a 24-hour endurance relay to a team of two? Mr B – a fellow Idiot – and I felt that we really could have run a bit more than our 25 miles, but we didn’t want to go totally mad and step up to the solo event, so we agreed that as the “Gruesome Twosome” we could put in more laps without the added pressure of competing individually. That’s some crazy runners’ logic for you.

Due to an admin error we would be joined only by D, who had registered as a solo male. The rest of the Idiots had failed to register a team in time for what is turning into an incredibly popular event. Thankfully though, Mrs B and Big Sis decided to join us as race support crew instead, with a couple of bottles of wine stashed away for the evening session. I was a little envious.

Hiding in the tentWe sent the boys out on Friday to select prime locations for the tents: one in the special solo area next to the start line for D and one to serve as race HQ slightly further away from the race area. The second would be somewhere for everyone to hide in when the torrential rain struck. The moral of the story for any race organiser surely must be, don’t plan a 24-hour outdoor event on Glastonbury weekend!

We were ready for the weather though and thankfully when the first rumbles of thunder echoed overhead the tent was already fully prepped, the snacks were out, the kettle was on and we were able to shelter inside as lightning flashed around the Wasing Park Estate, briefly knocking out the speaker system and causing the organisers to do some additional safety checks before the off.

We had a plan, we would do two laps at a time, sets of ten miles rather than five, interspersed with rest stops of between 90 minutes and two hours. If we could do five sets a piece we would be delighted. Rain was hammering down out of a very angry sky as Mr B walked over to the start. At just past 12 pm on Saturday 28 June we were finally off. Well, Mr B was. I had another two hours to wait before I had to get my running socks on.Endure24 2014

As he completed his first lap, he looked strong, exceptionally wet and muddy, but strong. When he finished his second he handed me the wristband (which served as the baton) with a smile and off I went.

Lap one seemed longer than I remembered from last year, but they count the distance in km rather than miles so it oddly seems further. In 2013 there had been a big dogleg in the camping area at the end but I guess in order to fit more tents in they had transferred this to the middle of the course. The new bit was a tight, potentially boggy trail section that would certainly be exciting during the hours of darkness.

Doing two laps instead of one was definitely more challenging. I had to remind myself to take it easy, that I needed to retain some energy for the second lap. I probably ran those first two laps quicker than I should have, but as I handed back over to Mr B, I felt pretty good.

As he came round to finish his third, Mr B understandably looked a little more tired than he had after his second and when he came in having finished his fourth there was a quick team talk about dropping back down to a lap at a time. Running my third I could feel it too. Two laps every time was going to be too much. Halfway through my fourth I suddenly felt really hungry and found myself dreaming about what I might eat during my next break.

When I reached the start/finish line I was unexpectedly herded into the pit stop (D’s solo area) by a super-efficient pit team of Big Sis and Mrs B. They handed me coffee, water and a pot of fruit and nuts and asked if I wanted to go round again, Mr B needed a rest. Well, so did I. I was already spent, 20 miles and only eight hours in. I said no, or words to that effect.

I made a strategic error, I had an hour in my lovely goose down sleeping bag. My head told me I didn’t want to go out again. Mr B put in another lap. I fought against my negative thoughts and changed into my third set of fresh kit and went out again, taking my head torch, it would be dark this time when I returned. It was raining, the trail was cut up massively, parts of it incredibly boggy. The puddles were huge, in between each puddle was a slippery mess. It was like Hellrunner, but dark, and thankfully without the Bog of Doom. Miraculously, I came back with a much more positive attitude than I had left with, ready to put in another one after Mr B’s next lap. He felt the same, out he went into the darkness.SJK in the darkness

Waiting for Mr B, I nearly talked myself out of it again, but when he came back I knew I couldn’t let him down, so out I trotted once again in change of clothing number four. It was very wet in places, a morass, a quagmire; I had plenty of time out there alone in the darkness to think of appropriate descriptive words. The trail was marked by glow sticks, with shelters decked in fairy lights at strategic points for the marshals and medics. There was also a fairy out there in the darkness. I think it was the photographer lady, all decked out in lights with a glowing wand, she obviously took her supportive role quite seriously.SJK in the darkness 2

We decided that considering the conditions it would make sense to have a break and get some kip. I finished lap six at about 1.20 am and wouldn’t go out again until nearly 6.00 am. I didn’t really sleep, by then I felt damp and horrible and although it wasn’t particularly noisy my body and mind weren’t feeling very restful.

On lap seven I could tell my body was tired. I sectioned out the route in my mind, talking myself through every stage. The first km started with a hill, I walked up it. I ran from the km marker to the next hill just before km three, which I walked up. I ran from there to the new dogleg, walking up a hill towards km four. There was a theme developing, walk the hills, run the flats. I reminded myself at the 4 km marker that I was now half way round; with every new step I was closer to the finish line. The stretch from four to five was mostly downhill and just after km five came the water stop. I took a cup and sipped it slowly as I walked up the hill, the one that had become ankle-deep in sludgy mud overnight. This was the last hill on the loop, once I had reached the top there was no excuse not to run again. Marker six was at a marshal’s tent and not long after that a downhill stretch led to the long, flat, wide path towards the race’s base. The final stretch in the field at the end was now very muddy, but in sight of everyone I couldn’t walk, I chose a better route than I had in the darkness and plodded on.DSCF3439

Mr B’s turn again. I wasn’t sure how much more I could actually “run”, but it was only about 8.30 am when Mr B returned, so off I went again, lap eight, 40 miles. Having reached his 40 miles, Mr B was done and I was again herded into the pit stop. D, who’d been out there on his own all that time, fighting his own demons far better than I, was going out again and Big Sis and Mrs B thought it might be nice if I joined him. This would take me up to 45 miles, there was definitely time and I was happy to accompany D as he reached mile 90.

As we left the field for the first hill a group of runners sat by the path stood and cheered. D had obviously made some fans on his Endure24 journey. Quite right too, having taken part as a pair in those conditions and having run further in one day than I had ever run before, by nearly 20 miles, I had a tiny inkling as to the mental and physical strength that D and the other solo athletes must possess to achieve what they do.Final lap

On that final lap we chatted about whether we should do any more. Frankly I didn’t want to, but if D had decided to go again I would have felt I should accompany him. He thought he could probably just fit in two more laps, taking him up to the 100, but he could also feel his body was on the edge of potential injury. The sensible decision would be to stop, to save himself for another day. Common sense ultimately prevailed and we crossed the line together, to commentary from the race organisers and cheers from D’s new legion of fans. After eating a veggie breakfast (me), collecting our medals and posing for the requisite photos, Endure24 was finally over for another year.

The question is, in what formation will the Idiots choose to fly next year? Flags